How metals and mining companies can sustainably meet growing demand from the electric vehicle sector.
The transportation sector is one of the world’s major polluters, accounting for around one fifth of all global CO2 emissions. And of transport’s footprint, three quarters comes from road travel, such as cars, buses, trucks and more. So, to help minimise emissions and reach wider environmental targets, the world must switch from traditional vehicles, powered by fossil-fuelled internal combustion engines (ICEs), to electric vehicles (EVs). Fortunately, this shift already looks set to be in motion.
Research from Frost & Sullivan shows that the global EV market, including hybrid EVs (HEVs), grew by around 75% in 2021. In units, this amounts to 14.5 million EVs and HEVs, or around one in 10 of all vehicles sold throughout the year. The fact that this growth unfolded despite sweeping industry setbacks, like supply chain issues and pandemic-related labour shortages, shows that the world’s commitment to sustainable travel is becoming increasingly unwavering. But while this is positive news for the environment, it also brings sweeping challenges to the metals and mining market.
Heavy metal driving
By 2025, EV sales are expected to make up 18% of all vehicle sales, growing to 56% by 2030 and surpassing the sales numbers of traditional ICEs. But those figures can be even higher because EV adoption is currently exceeding those expectations. In Q1 2023, an EV model was the best-selling vehicle worldwide.
Accompanying EV progress will be the recovery of the global charging station market, which has rebounded to pre-pandemic expansion rates of as much as 50%. This EV evolution is likely spearheaded not only by greener consumer attitudes but also legal restrictions, with countries like the UK announcing a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030.
However, almost every EV requires a lithium-ion battery built with several key materials from the metals and mining industry. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an average 2022 EV uses 206.9kg of minerals, compared to a conventional car’s 33.8kg – a staggering 512.13% difference. Of an EV battery’s 206.9kg (19.3%), plus slightly lesser amounts of manganese, cobalt, lithium, and rare earths. So, as demand for EVs accelerates, so too will demand for these minerals.
Copper is likely to see the biggest growth within the EV metals space. To meet demand, the metals and mining industry is forecast to add 1,700 thousand tons of copper production in the decade between 2017 and 2027. Yet copper, among other metals, is becoming progressively difficult to extract due to degrading ore quality. One study by the University of Zaragoza shows that the average ore grade had decreased approximately by 25% in just 10 years. As a result, metal mining and the production of high-quality materials are becoming more expensive and energy and resource intensive.
In that same study, an analysis of Chilean mines found that as copper production increased from 2003 to 2013 by 30% to sift through the declining grades, energy consumption rose accordingly by 46%. Without intervention, the world’s collective move to greener transport could, in fact, partly backfire. So, how can metals and mining organisations remain sustainable throughout this rising demand?
Part of the answer will likely involve adopting the same renewable and electric technologies that EVs and similar sustainable ventures demand in the first place. For instance, businesses can add solar and wind power to their drilling operations and switch to battery-driven equipment to minimise their footprints.
Alongside renewable power, the industry must consider strategies and investments that create exceptionally efficient, sustainable long-term processes to transform existing assets and future-proof new builds. Data-driven technologies will be crucial to this modernisation of operations, with early adopters able to maximise efficiencies, minimise installation costs, and even capture new market growth.
Strategies for sustainability
According to the BGG’s Digital Acceleration Index, the metals and mining industry is currently around “30% to 40% less digitally mature than comparable industries, such as automotive or chemicals.” This is a vast deficit, so the industry’s next goal must be to build, or retrofit, ‘smart’ mines and plants. This begins with the addition of low-cost, high-functionality sensors and analytics, which can track productivity, efficiency, equipment health, and safety. Then, the central system will generate data-backed insights that accelerate a plant’s operational efficiency.
Unifying operations in this way can result in significant energy and cost savings. Currently, power is often managed independently from process systems, with separate data stores and controls. Under a unified system that brings together process and energy controls, operators gain new end-to-end system visibility and can optimise production and power while minimising redundancies. Upgrading these sites with an effective energy management programme can reduce energy costs by as much as 20% on its own. But, if energy efficiency solutions like power and process strategies are incorporated into new constructions and designs, this reduction can rise to as high as 50%.
Ultimately, the coming years and decades will bring a new era of EV growth, accelerating demand for the metals and mining industry. The companies that adopt a technology-forward approach early will create successful, sustainable organisations—best positioned to unlock efficient, compliant, and profitable growth and become market leaders in this new era of decarbonisation.
Juan Manuel Pardal is the Metals Processing Segment Leader, Process Automation, at Schneider Electric.